The road to provincial glory was almost certainly going to have the Neelin Spartans in the way.
Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute Hawks varsity girls’ head coach Angela Diboll, in her first season as the bench boss, made plans to become the barricade instead of finding ways around that of the Spartans. Midway through the season, Diboll changed the positions of some of her star players, the most drastic being placing Grade 12 left-side Kalena Schulz in the middle to counter Neelin’s strength in that position.
"She accepted graciously and it was a new position for her, but she did super-well there," Diboll said, noting she also switched setter Katie Friesen to hitter. "They were all willing to do whatever it takes.
"Neelin has really strong middles, so I moved Kal (Schulz) there to be a bigger block in the middle."
The strategy worked, as the Hawks avenged last year’s provincial final loss to the Spartans, in which they captured the first set before losing the next three. This year, MBCI took the first set 25-20, but lost the next two, including blowing a 24-21 lead in the third to fall behind. The Hawks were determined not to let history repeat itself, capturing the final in five sets at the Investors Group Athletic Centre on Dec. 2.
"We got down in every single set, but the girls stayed so focused and so mentally tough, because that can be draining," said Diboll, who previously served as an assistant before taking over the top gig. "They were so patient and mature."
Schulz said the team’s serving and passing improved dramatically in the final sets to help the team secure victory.
Grade 12 player Shayna Staerk, who shifted from right-side to left-side late in the year, credited Diboll with keeping things calm in the face of the deficit.
"The coaches really just calmed us down and kept our heads in the game," said Staerk, who was named as a tournament all-star along with Friesen. "We knew that we were going to get through it together and we just fought."
Being popped into the middle was a challenge, Schulz said, but it was one she was open to.
"It’s a lot more blocking, a lot more running," Schulz said. "It was fun trying everything."
Schulz said she started feeling comfortable in the role with a victory over Neelin at the St. Vital Invitational. Setter Maiya Westwood, who earned provincial tournament MVP honours as a Grade 11 player, pinpointed the moment in that match she felt Schulz had the role down pat.
"I remember one kill, I set her," Westwood recalled. "She crushed it and no one was even close."
On a personal level, Westwood was shocked to learn of her MVP honours.
"I didn’t really hear it at first," Westwood said. "Then Katie pushed me and I was like ‘Oh!’"
Mennonite Brethren has long been considered a volleyball powerhouse, as six AAAA varsity boys’ provincial championship banners adorn the walls of the Talbot Avenue gym. However, this marks the first varsity girls’ title.
"It’s huge for our school. We’ve been to the championship a couple of times, but we’ve never won the championship," Diboll said. "It’ll be great for our school to have a strong girls’ program."
The Hawks were no strangers to collecting hardware this season, having won the Seven Oaks Tournament, the St. Vital Invitational, and a tournament in B.C. held at Trinity Western University.